Tagged: Tony Pena

‘Baby Bombers’ Shine Now But Future Is Brighter

It is no big secret that the New York Yankees are pretty much nearing their yearly limit on their healthcare plan. So much for “A-Rodcare,” literally! But with the slew of injuries has come the necessity for the Yankees to dip into their minor-league system for rookies. With the team in first place it is obvious that they are getting contributions from the so-called “Baby Bombers.” Let’s see how they are doing and rank them by their potential for what they will provide the team in the long run. 

1) PRESTON CLAIBORNE, RIGHT-HANDED RELIEVER, 0-0, 0.69 ERA

Claiborne’s star has been rising quickly the past two seasons. At 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, the 25-year-old Dallas native presents the typical power arm frame.

At Double-A Trenton in 2012, Claiborne was 2-2 with a 2.22 ERA and he saved five of the six games he closed. He struck out 49 batters in 48 2/3 innings over 30 appearances. He moved up to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and was 4-0 with a 4.05 ERA and saved one of his two opportunities. He struck out 29 in 33 1/3 innings there.

But the Yankees were absolutely ecstatic over his performance during spring training. He was 1-0 with a 0.84 ERA and he struck out 11 batters in 10 2/3 innings over 10 appearances. Manager Joe Girardi praised Claiborne for not looking overmatched against top-flight major-league hitters. But the Yankees’ bullpen was full and Claiborne was assigned back to Scranton.

In eight games there, Claiborne was 0-0 with a 3.48 ERA and he had saved all three of his save opportunities.

So when right-hander Joba Chamberlain was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a left oblique strain on May 3, Claiborne was summoned to get his first taste of the majors. By the way Claiborne has pitched, he does not want to wash that great taste out of his mouth for a long time.

The rookie flamethrower is 0-0 with 0.69 ERA and he has struck out 10 batters without issuing a walk in 13 innings covering nine appearances.

It is odd that Claiborne has replaced Chamberlain so seamlessly because most scouts compare the two. He even has been called “Joba Jr.” because of his resemblance to the veteran reliever.

Claiborne features a fastball and slider combination with an occasional change. Girardi likes him because he is fearless in attacking hitters, which shows in the fact he has not issued a walk yet. Though Claiborne is not looked upon as a future closer, he could contribute nicely as a late-inning setup man in the mold of David Robertson or Chamberlain before injuries sidetracked his career lately.

Claiborne is, by far, the most impressive rookie the Yankees have used this season and he probably has the highest long-term ceiling because of his refusal to nibble on the corners. Claiborne is an attack pitcher with a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a slider with a good bite.

He may be less heralded than Chamberlain was because he was not a No. 1 draft pick. He was chosen in the 17th round in 2010 out of Tulane University. But he has exceeded expectations much like the way David Phelps has progressed through the minors as a starter.

Claiborne looks like a long-term keeper for the Yankees and he should not be sent down when Chamberlain returns from his rehab stint. Unfortunately, it is looking like either he or right-hander Adam Warren will have to go.

2) DAVID ADAMS, INFIELDER, 2 HRS, 3 RBIs, .306

You can probably call Adams the “greatest forgotten Yankees prospect in history.” The reason is that Adams has been detouring through the system because of a nagging ankle injury he suffered in 2010 at Double-A Trenton.

That was the famous injury that killed the Cliff Lee trade with the Seattle Mariners. Adams was packaged along with Jose Montero and Ivan Nova in July 2010 in a deal for Lee. But the Mariners rejected the deal because of Adams and they asked for shortstop Eduardo Nunez instead.

At that asking price, general manager Brian Cashman balked and Lee was traded to the Texas Rangers instead.

Since then Adams has been trying to get back on what he hoped would be a major-league track. Adams’ ankle injury was far more serious than anyone thought at the time and he missed pretty much all of the 2011 minor-league season.

The former 2008 third-round pick out of the University of Virginia did manage to play in 86 games at Double-A Trenton in 2012 and hit .306 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs.

However, the Yankees ran into a bit of a jam with their 40-man roster this spring. Adams, who was not invited to spring training, was released by the Yankees so they could get outfielder Vernon Wells on the roster. Because no other team called Adams with an offer he remained a free agent.

So the Yankees re-signed him and shipped him to Scranton, where he was hitting .316 with homer and three RBIs in 27 games. If the Yankees had a choice they would have recalled Adams when Kevin Youkilis was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a lower back sprain on April 30.

But major-league rules prevent teams from calling up former free agents re-signed by their original club until May 15. So the Yankees recalled fellow rookie infielder Corban Joseph for a time and then they signed Chris Nelson when he was released by the Colorado Rockies.

But on May 15, which also was Adams’ 26th birthday, the Yankees released Nelson, brought Adams up from Scranton and he was installed as the team’s starting third baseman that very evening.

Originally a second baseman, Adams has been used at third base during stretches of his career because Joseph was the team’s biggest prospect at second base.

But Adams  –  now fully recovered from that nagging ankle injury some thee years later  –  is showing why he was such a highly touted prospect all those years. In nine games, Adams has at least one hit in eight of them and he is batting a robust .306 (11 for 36) with two home runs and three RBIs.

Though Adams’ defense is not listed by scouts as a strong suit because the ankle injury kept him off the field and perhaps reduced his range a bit, his defense with the Yankees has been better than advertised. He has not committed an error in his first 26 chances but it is obvious that a Gold Glove is not is in future either.

But playing solid defense while contributing offensively is just what the Yankees want him to do until Youkilis is activated from the disabled list sometime within the next week or so.

Adams likely will have to be sent back to Scranton but there is no doubt he has made an impression on the Yankees.

With Alex Rodriguez and Youkilis ahead of him at third base, Adams future there is a bit murky. But Robinson Cano can leave the Yankees as a free agent in 2014 and Youkilis only has a one-year contract. So Adams does have some potential value to the Yankees in the next year.

Adams also could have some value in potential trades the Yankees might consider down the line. But there is no doubt that after three seasons of futility dealing with a serious injury, Adams is back on track for a major-league career.

The Yankees are pleased with what he has contributed so far. If it were up to Adams it would be more of a long-term engagement.

3) VIDAL NUNO, LEFT-HANDED STARTER, 1-1, 1.93 ERA

While Adams and Claiborne were products of the Yankees’ farm system, Nuno actually was a 48th round draft pick in 2009 of the Cleveland Indians.

But after two seasons in the Cleveland minor-league system, he was released and he ended up signing with the Washington (PA) Wild Things in the independent Frontier League. There Nuno developed a change up and he caught the eye of scouts for the Yankees.

The Yankees signed him and the 25-year-old southpaw has breezed through the Yankees’ minor-league system the past two seasons.

In two stops in 2011, Nuno was 7-1 with a 1.38 ERA in 15 games (seven starts). In 2012, Nuno was a combined 10-6 with a 2.54 ERA between stops at High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton.

But Nuno really opened eyes when he became a late addition to the Yankees’ spring training roster. Nuno was 1-1 with a 0.61 ERA in seven games (two starts) with the Yankees. But what really opened the Yankees’ eyes was in a game he pitched against the Yankees as a loaner to the Dominican Republic team in an exhibition game.

Nuno shut out the Yankees over five innings and he ended up being selected as the winner of the James P. Dawson Award as the team’s top rookie of the spring.

Though Nuno was shipped out to Scranton he had made an impression.

So when Nova was placed on the 15-day disabled list on April 27, Nuno was called up to take his place on the roster.

In his major-league debut, Nuno pitched three scoreless innings of relief against the Houston Astros on April 29.

On May 13, he shut out the Indians over five innings in his first major-league start and was promptly optioned back to Scranton on May 14. But he was recalled on May 17 when Andy Pettitte was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left trapezius muscle.

Nuno finally got tagged for his first run and home run allowed and took his first major-league loss on Tuesday when gave up a leadoff walk-off solo home run in the 10th inning to Nate McLouth of the Baltimore Orioles.

But, in true bounce-back fashion, Nuno pitched well in his second major-league start by limiting the Tampa Bay Rays to just one run on five hits in six innings on Saturday.

It is easy to see why Nuno was rapidly released by the Indians when you look at his fastball velocity. It is in the upper 80s and rarely reaches 90. That means Nuno must stay away from the middle of the plate and rely on his control to be effective.

Of course, little did the Indians know, but Nuno excels at throwing strikes and limiting walks. In 385 innings, Nuno has walked only 69 batters while he has struck out 371. That is nearly a 5 1/2 strikeouts per walk ratio.

The Yankees plan to send him back to Scranton when Pettitte is activated on June 1. But Nuno may have a future as a starter with a major-league team, even if it is not the Yankees. Nuno mainly will have to prove he can continue to get hitters out and he does a need a season at the Triple-A level.

But his long-term future can be bright with the Yankees because Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda are pitching under one-year contracts and Phil Hughes can hit the free-agent market this winter. So Nuno may be needed to fill a vacancy in the rotation next season.

If nothing else, Nuno could fill a need as a left-hander out the bullpen, though Nuno has shined much more brightly as a starter throughout his minor-league career.

In any event, Nuno has carved out a big spot in the Yankees’ future plans because left-handers with control can have very long careers in the major leagues. Ask David Wells.

4) AUSTIN ROMINE, CATCHER, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs, .118 BA

Unlike the others, Romine is in the Yankees’ listing of the Top 20 prospects in the organization. He is ranked at No. 17.

The main calling for Romine, 24, is his defense, which Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena rate as “major-league quality.” Romine has managed to remain with the Yankees while Montero has not because of his defense.

The only things that have held Romine back is a recurring back problem  –  which Romine has deal with on a daily basis with stretching exercises  –  and his bat. Romine is a career .280 hitter in the minors but it has not, as yet, translated to the major-league level.

But when Francisco Cervelli sustained a fractured right hand on April 26, Romine was summoned from Scranton, where he was hitting .333 with a homer and four RBIs in 14 games.

Chris Stewart was elevated to the starter behind the plate and Romine was expected to catch a game each week, at best.

But Stewart suffered a mild strain of his left groin on May 16 and Romine was thrust into the starter’s role for six games this week until Stewart returned on Saturday. Romine was 3-for-18 (.167) with no home runs and one RBI. Overall, he is hitting .118 with a no home runs and two RBIs.

What Romine lacks as a hitter he still excels at as a catcher. He calls a solid game (that is a work in progress), he is excellent at blocking pitches and he has a very good arm that deters base-stealers. He has thrown out 25 percent of potential base-stealers at the minor-league level in his career.

With Cervelli sidelined until sometime after the All-Star break, Romine will remain the backup catcher for the Yankees until he returns.

That will allow Romine to have some time to develop his hitting at the major-league level and learn more of the fundamentals of defense from Girardi and Pena.

The Yankees are actually loaded at the position with their No. 1 prospect Gary Sanchez and hard-hitting J.R. Murphy making their way through the Yankees’ system. The Yankees are going to have to make a determination of where Romine fits in their long-range plans.

They hope he can improve with the bat enough to stick with the Yankees. They would love for him to take the starting job in 2014. That, however, is up to Romine and how much he able to benefit from the major-league experience he is getting now.

The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine will have to step it up overtake Cervelli and Stewart soon and keep Sanchez and Murphy at bay down the road. There is a long way to go and Romine just happens to have time on his side.

In addition to these four rookies who debuted this season, two other rookies have played for the Yankees this season: right-hander Warren and infielder Joseph. Warren, 26, was not included in the original list because he made his major-league debut in 2012, but he is still considered as a rookie this season. Joseph, 24, was called  up from Scranton on April 30 to replace Youkilis. But he hit .167 in six at-bats before he was sent back Scranton May 14.  Warren, however, is contributing very well out of the bullpen, where he is 1-0 with a 3.12 ERA.  

COMBINED TOTALS

The rookie pitchers (Claiborne, Nuno and Warren) are 2-1 with a 1.24 ERA and 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in 50 2/3 innings covering 22 appearances (two starts). Adams, Romine and Joseph have combined to go 16-for-76 (.211) with two home runs and five RBIs. Those contributions from the rookies has been a huge part of the reason why the Yankees have been able to weather the devastating injuries to their veterans this season and remain in first place. It is a testament to the scouting and the evaluations made under the direction of Cashman. The odd thing is these rookies are not considered among the team’s top prospects. There are many more at the Double-A and Single-A levels. That would indicate that the Yankees might not need to be signing many high-priced free agents in the immediate future.

Phelps Sharp But Yankees Fire Blanks At Braves

GAME 11

BRAVES 2, YANKEES 0

TAMPA  –  Jordan Schaffer led off the game with a double and later scored on a Justin Upton groundout as Atlanta shut out New York on Tuesday at George M. Steinbrenner Field.

Paul Maholm (1-1) and four Braves relievers held the Yankees to five hits. David Phelps (1-1) pitched four strong innings in his bid for a rotation spot despite taking the loss. J.R. Graham pitched two scoreless innings to earn his second spring save.

The Yankees helped the Braves immensely by going 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine men on the bases.

The Yankees fell to 3-8 on the spring. The Braves improved to 6-6.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • If Brett Gardner were to get any hotter with the bat you could fry an egg on his forehead. Gardner went 2-for-3 against the Braves and is hitting .579 on the spring. For those Yankee fans who are angling for Gardner to lead off for the team this season you may as well keep dreaming. Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki will hit in the top two spots. Gardner likely will hit ninth.
  • Despite giving up the double to Schaffer that led to a run in the first inning, Phelps pitched exceptionally well. He gave up just two hits and a walk and struck out two. In his nine innings this spring, Phelps has given up just one run on seven hits and two walks and struck out three. It is hard to see how the Yankees can keep him out of the rotation.
  • Suzuki doubled off the base of the rightfield wall in the fifth inning and went 1-for-3 in the game. Suzuki is also having a pretty productive spring. He is hitting .400 and he shows no ill effects from his recent car accident last week.
  • Shawn Kelley looked really sharp in the the ninth inning, putting the Braves away 1-2-3 with two strikeouts. Kelley, 28, was 2-4 with a 3.25 ERA in 47 games with the Seattle Mariners last season. He could figure to make the team because he has a power arm.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • Travis Hafner has only had 10 at-bats but he needs to start showing that he can drive the ball. Hafner was 0-for-1 with two walks and is 2-for-10 so far this spring. With the Yankees missing so much of their power from last season Hafner is important piece to providing consistent power as the left-hand designated hitter.
  • The team’s errors seem to multiplying like rabbits. There were three more errors against the Braves and two by Corban Joseph, who was playing – you guessed it – third base. Third has been like a black hole for the Yankees all spring. In 11 games the Yankees have committed 19 errors this spring and 11 of them have been committed by third basemen.
  • Mark Montgomery, 22, had a night he would like to forget. He gave up a single to Tyler Pastornicky and Pastornicky stole second and advanced to third when J.R. Murphy overthrew second. Then Montgomery was called for a balk to allow Pastornicky to score. Montgomery followed that up by walking two batters and hitting another to load the bases. He was replaced by Francisco Rondon, who wriggled out of the bases-loaded jam with a strikeout and a groundout.

BOMBER BANTER

The M*A*S*H unit that is the Yankees received another patient who was not even in Tampa to get injured. Mark Teixeira, who was training in Arizona with Team USA, strained the inside of his right wrist taking swings in batting practice preparing for an exhibition game against the White Sox. X-rays were negative for a break but Teixeira will be unable to play in the World Baseball Classic and will be shelved for at least two weeks. At this rate, Francisco Cervelli may end up as the team’s Opening Day cleanup hitter.  . . .   Manager Joe Girardi told the YES Network on Tuesday that the team is shooting for Mariano Rivera to make his spring debut on Saturday in a game against the Braves. He also said that Jeter could play on Sunday.  . . .  General manager Brian Cashman showed up at camp sporting a cast on his right ankle and crutches he will be using for about eight weeks. Cashman broke his fractured his right fibula and dislocated his ankle skydiving on Monday as part of a charity event for the Wounded Warriors Project. If at any time I report that the Yankees’ batboy has been injured you know this team is truly cursed.  . . .  The team’s top prospect, catcher Gary Sanchez, was among eight players reassigned to minor-league camp. Along with Sanchez, 20, the Yankees sent out infielders David Adams, Greg Bird, Cito Culver and Rob Segedin; outfielder Tyler Austin and catchers Francisco Arcia and Kyle Higashioka. That leaves the Yankees with 68 players in camp.

ON DECK

It may be a bit strange but the Yankees will be looking at bench coach Tony Pena and second baseman Robinson Cano in the opposing dugout on Wednesday. The Yankees will be playing an exhibition against the Dominican Republic team from the WBC. Cano likely will start at second base and Pena is the team’s manager.

Hiroki Kuroda will get the start for the Yankees and he will be opposed by former Yankee right-hander Jose Veras.

Game-time will be 1:05 p..m. EST and the game will be telecast live by the MLB Network.

 

Yankees Suffer Another Afternoon For The Birds

GAME 3

ORIOLES 5, YANKEES 1

Brian Roberts doubled twice and scored two runs and left-hander Brian Matusz pitched two scoreless innings as Baltimore defeated New York in front of a crowd of 7,335 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, FL.

Roberts’ doubles sparked the Orioles to an early 2-0 lead. He stroked a one-out double in the first, advanced to third on a balk and scored on a two-out RBI single from Adam Jones. Roberts slapped another one-out double in the third and scored on an RBI single by Nick Markakis.

Matusz (1-0) gave up two hits to the first two batters he faced but retired the next five to earn the victory. Left-hander Vidal Nuno (0-1) took the loss despite the fact that five of the six batters he retired struck out looking, including Markakis, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, Conor Jackson and Manny Machado.

The Yankees’ scored their lone run in the ninth inning on a walk and stolen base by Corban Joseph and an RIBI single by Walter Ibarra. The run broke a string of 19 consecutive scoreless innings for the Yankees.

The Yankees fell to 1-2 in Grapefruit League play while the Orioles are 3-0.

PINSTRIPE POSITIVES

  • Leadoff hitter Brett Gardner was 3-for-3 with three singles and second batter Jayson Nix collected two singles in three at-bats. The rest of the Yankees were 3-for-28 (.107). Gardner, who missed virtually all of the 2012 season with a right elbow injury, is hitting .667 in the early going. Nix is hitting .750 in the two games he has played.
  • Though Nuno was touched for Roberts’ double and Jones’ RBI single, he certainly looked impressive in striking out five batters in his two innings of work. Nuno, 24, was signed by the Yankees last winter off the independent Washington Wild roster and he’s been dominating minor-league hitters ever since. At Double-A Trenton Nidal was 9-5 with a 2.45 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 114 innings in 20 starts last season. Since he has learned a change-up he being tabbed as an older version of Manny Banuelos, who will miss the 2013 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
  • Josh Spence, a 25-year-old Australian left-hander, was the only Yankee hurler to pitch a perfect 1-2-3 inning and that was in the ninth. The Yankees claimed Spence off waivers from the San Diego Padres in early November after he was 4-2 with a 4.20 ERA 31 games at Triple-A Tucson.

NAGGING NEGATIVES

  • For the second straight day the Yankees’ offense was pretty much missing in action. If Ibarra had not driven in Joseph in the final frame the Yankees would have been 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position in their last two games.
  • If Matt Diaz and Juan Rivera are seeking to stake a claim to replace Curtis Granderson as the team’s starting left-fielder as he recovers from a broken right forearm they have got to do better than they did on Monday. Diaz was 0-for-3 and stranded six base-runners. He hit into a double play and did not get a ball out the infield. Rivera also was 0-for-3 including a strikeout.
  • Before you get too angry at the Yankees’ pitching staff for giving up five runs just remember that pitchers such as Nuno, Bryan Mitchell, Corey Black, Shane Greene, Ryan Pope, Kelvin Perez and Spence are not battling for roster spots. They are all headed back to the minors. The Orioles, in contrast, threw veterans like Matusz, Tommy Hunter, Pedro Strop and Mark Hendrickson.

BOMBER BANTER

With the Yankees looking to replace Granderson, veteran outfielder Johnny Damon told ESPN Radio’s Michael Kay that he would be interested in returning to the Yankees if he got a call to come to spring training. Damon, 39, said he is willing to fill in for Granderson for the six weeks he will miss, he would play for the minimum salary and would need about three or four weeks to get in shape. Asked about the possibility of bringing Damon to camp, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, “We will focus on what we have at this time.”  . . .  Mariano Rivera threw 32 pitches in a live batting-practice session on Monday, and CC Sabathia threw batting practice to hitters for the first time this spring as the rehabbing hurlers continue prepare for Opening Day.  . . .  Manager Joe Girardi said that outfield prospects Tyler Austin and Slade Heathcott will not be considered to open the season in New York.  . . .  Yankees outfielder Melky Mesa said that even after Granderson’s injury, he still plans to leave camp to play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.  Bench coach Tony Pena will be managing the Dominican squad.

ON DECK

The Yankees will travel to Clrawater, FL, on Tuesday to take on the Philadelphia Phillies.

Hot prospect right-hander Jose Ramirez will draw the start for the Yankees. He will be opposed by veteran right-hander Kyle Kendrick.

The Yankees will send Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner to play in the game. Relievers Joba Chamberlain and David Robertson are also scheduled to make the spring debuts.

Game-time will be 1:05 p.m. EST and the game will be broadcast live on the MLB Network.

 

Yankees To Showcase Four Huge Spring Battles

The pitchers and catchers of the New York Yankees have reported to spring training camp in Tampa, FL, and the position players will soon be joining them. The Yankees’ first scheduled exhibition game is a week away. There are very few jobs on the line this spring as it is with most seasons with the Yankees. But there are four battles worth watching this spring and the result may determine how successful the team will be in 2013. Let’s look at them.

4) STARTING CATCHER: FRANCISCO CERVELLI vs. CHRIS STEWART

With the departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates as a free agent, the Yankees will be looking at replacing him from within their own ranks. The Yankees elected not to sign such free agents as A.J. Pierzynski and Miguel Oilvo. The problem is that Martin not only provided the Yankees with Gold Glove-quality defense behind the plate, he also provided power despite the fact his batting average was stuck below .200 for most of the 2012 season. The two main candidates to replace Martin are Cervelli, 26, who had been the team’s primary backup catcher in 2010 and 2011 but was optioned to Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre on the final day of spring training last season due to the acquisition of Stewart, 30, from the San Francisco Giants. Cervelli arrives as the team’s best hitting option because he owns a career .271 batting average. But he lacks power and, although he calls a good game behind the plate, his throwing can be very erratic. He has a career success rate of throwing out 19.8 percent of base-runners. In contrast, throwing out base-runners is Stewart’s forte. He has nailed 33.7 percent of potential base-stealers and Stewart’s other defensive skills are pretty much on par with Martin’s. The big negative with Stewart is that he is a career .217 hitter and he has no power. In addition to this battle, there are a pair of catchers looking to make an impression in rookie Austin Romine, 24, and non-roster invitee Bobby Wilson, 29. Romine is coming off a season in which he was plagued by a lower-back strain that limited him to just 33 games in the minors last season. Wilson, a former backup catcher with the Los Angels Angels, was released by the Toronto Blue Jays after spending the entire 2012 season at Triple A. Romine’s strong suit is defense and manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, both former catchers, believe Romine is ready to catch at the major-league level now. The issue with Romine is that he has to prove he is healthy and he has to improve as a hitter. Wilson is almost a carbon copy of Stewart. He has nailed 27.1 percent of potential base-stealers but his career major-league batting average is .208.

PREDICTION: Cervelli should win the job, barring injury, which is a legitimate concern. Cervelli has suffered three separate concussions, a broken wrist and a broken bone in his foot over the past five seasons. So his durability is an issue. Stewart, on the basis of his solid season as backup in 2012, seems to be almost assured of retaining his job. But Romine is worth watching this spring. If he is healthy and he shows signs his hitting is improving he might get a promotion to the majors this season. But realistically the Yankees would prefer that he get in a full season at Scranton and he could be promoted in September with a hope he can compete for a starting role in 2014. Wilson will be insurance in case there is an injury to Cervelli or Stewart and he likely will share the catching chores with Romine at Scranton.

3) RESERVE INFIELDER: JAYSON NIX vs. EDUARDO NUNEZ

Although this is, in a sense, a rematch from last spring, it also is not. Confused? Well, Nunez was actually competing for the backup infield spot with Ramiro Pena and Nix, who was signed as a minor-league free agent, was just invited to spring training. Nunez, 25, easily won the role by hitting .372 while Pena hit .240. Nix, 30, was a longshot to make the team and did not. However, he did open some eyes by hitting .323 and flashing some solid defense at second base, third base and shortstop. Nix also proved valuable in that he could play the corner outfield spots. So he was optioned to Scranton and he hit .233 there before he was summoned on May 3. Nunez was hitting a sizzling .294 but his penchant to commit careless fielding errors doomed him. He was optioned to Scranton on May 11 and Nix became the team’s backup infielder. Nunez’s season pretty much fell apart after that. He suffered an injury to his right hand that sidelined him for most of the minor-league season. He was recalled to the Yankees when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1 but the Yankees top brass insisted that Nunez was being groomed as primarily a shortstop and that he would not used as a utility infielder anymore. Nix,meanwhile, flourished in his role, hitting .243 with four home runs and 18 RBIs in 174 at-bats in 77 games. Though Nunez is clearly a better athlete, a better hitter and a better base-stealer, Nix was so much steadier in the field that the Yankees were pleased with his work. Nunez committed seven errors in 38 games with the Yankees while Nix was charged with only three. A quick look at the Yankees’ depth chart on yankees.com shows something interesting this spring. Nunez is listed as the primary backup at second, third, shortstop and leftfield. Huh? I guess the Yankees changed their minds about Nunez not being a utility player and he will battle Nix for the role. If anyone believes Nunez is going to shed his nickname of “Eduardo Scissorhands” this spring than I have some prime swampland to sell you. But the Yankees may need his hitting and his base-stealing ability more than they need his fielding this season. The Yankees lost a lot of power from the 2012 club and they may need to score more runs by moving runners around the bases and stealing more bases. That would favor Nunez, who actually embarrassingly was third on the team last season with 11 stolen bases despite playing in only 38 games. Nix is still in the picture because of his fielding and steady play. It is going to be a very close call either way it goes.

PREDICTION: Nunez not only has hitting and base-stealing advantages this spring. He also may benefit from the slow recovery of Derek Jeter from surgery on his fractured left ankle and the presence of camp invitee Dan Johnson. If Jeter can’t start the season at shortstop, Nunez will man the position in his place. The reason Johnson is important is that he is a left-handed power hitter who can play both first and third base. If Johnson can make the team and show he field third base adequately enough, Nunez would only need to back up at shortstop and second base. That would lessen the chances Nix would have to making the 25-man roster. Johnson would, in effect, replace Eric Chavez, who opted to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks. That would allow Nunez to remain as a backup middle infielder and potentially a right-handed platoon designated hitter. If I was a betting man, I would wager that this is the scenario that likely will play out. Nix could accept a demotion to Scranton as insurance. It also is possible that Nunez could be packaged in a trade before the season starts. But that won’t happen until Jeter shows he will be ready to play by Opening Day.

2) BACKUP OUTFIELDER: MATT DIAZ vs. JUAN RIVERA

One of the reasons Nunez is listed as a backup in leftfield is because both Diaz and Rivera are non-roster invitees to spring training. But, rest assured, one of them make the team as a right-handed hitting backup outfielder. Diaz, 34, was released by the Atlanta Braves after suffering through a season cut short in August by season-ending surgery on his right thumb. Diaz hit .222 with two home runs and 13 RBIs. He is a career .291 hitter and he has been an exceptional hitter against left-handed pitching. Rivera, 34, originally came up through the Yankees’ minor-league system and played with the Yankees in parts of the 2002 and 2003 seasons before being traded to the then Montreal Expos before the 2004 season. Rivera was reserve outfielder with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season and hit .244 with nine home runs and 47 RBIs. He is a career .274 hitter and h also has been a much better hitter against left-handers. When the Yankees chose to allow Andruw Jones sign with a team in Japan, the Yankees opened up a spot on the roster for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder who could also serve as a right-handed platoon designated hitter. Neither player is considered as accomplished fielders though Diaz has a bit more range. As hitters, Diaz is a better hitter for average though Rivera boasts considerably more power. Because the Yankees starting outfield is an all left-handed-hitting group consisting of Brett Gardner, Curtis Granderson and Ichiro Suzuki it is important that the Yankees have a right-handed-hitting option on the bench. So these two players will be fighting it out.

PREDICTION: Because of Rivera’s former ties to the club and the fact he hits with more power, he has a big edge over Diaz. Neither Gardner or Suzuki have much power so it will be important to have a hitter on the bench who can provide it from the right side. Should Girardi also need a right-handed DH, Rivera fits the Jones mold better than Diaz does. Diaz also has slipped significantly since the 2009 season when he hit .313 and he also is coming off surgery. Rivera, on the other hand, also has slipped from his 2009 season when he hit .287 with 25 home runs and 88 RBIs with the Los Angeles Angels. But last season was the first season in which he has failed to connect for double-digit home runs since the 2007 season in which he played in only 14 games. Rivera will likely win the job easily barring injury or something else unforeseen.

1) NO. 5 STARTING PITCHER: IVAN NOVA vs. DAVID PHELPS

Those other position battles are the undercard but this one is the Main Event. It is also odd that there is even a competition involving Nova considering how good he was in his rookie season in 2011. But Nova, 26, struggled from the minute spring exhibitions started in 2012 and it got so bad that he was taken out of the rotation in favor of Phelps by Girardi in September. Nova’s record in 2011 was 16-4 and he was 12-8 last season. However, his ERA jumped from 3.70 to 5.02 and, though he recorded a 1.26 ERA in June last season, his ERA in the other months was: 5.18 in April, 5.87 in May, 5.97 in July, 7.03 in August and 6.23 in September. Ouch! So that is the reason Phelps is challenging him for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Phelps, 25, arrived in camp last spring voted as the organization’s best minor-league pitcher in 2011. Though scouts have always doubted him, Phelps rose through the minors and carries a record of 40-15 with a 2.51 ERA in 90 starts. In spring training, Phelps was 0-1 with a 2.08 ERA in seven appearances and was named the Yankees’ top rookie of the spring. He also earned a spot in the bullpen. Phelps then turned in some sparkling performances as a long reliever and spot starter with the Yankees. He ended the season 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 appearances (11 starts). This competition is hard to handicap because Nova – truth be told – has the nastiest stuff of any of the Yankees’ starters. Last season he just could not harness it and he got hit hard when he fell behind and had to throw fastballs. Phelps is pit-bull on the mound who has supreme confidence in himself and his stuff.

PREDICTION: I really have no idea on how this will turn out but I still believe that Nova has a bit of an edge on the basis of his rookie season. But Phelps has been doubted at every step of the way since he starred at Notre Dame. You can never measure desire and he has it. I can tell you the loser of this battle will not necessarily be heading to the bullpen. For one thing, Nova has little or no bullpen experience. Another reason is that the Yankees probably will want to make sure that the starter they do not select for the rotation remains “stretched out” as a starter at the minor-league level so they can step in case of an injury. I can also say it is refreshing to see that with homegrown starters like Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes already in the rotation and two homegrown starters like Nova and Phelps battling for the last rotation spot, that the Yankees’ minor-league system is beginning to churn out talent at a time when the payroll needs to be reduced.  It sure beats shelling out money to guys like Sergio Mitre and Freddy Garcia. That is progress.

 

Here Are Five Young Yankees To Watch This Spring

Training camp opens in just a few weeks and the New York Yankees’ first exhibition game is a month away. Unlike past springs, the Yankees do not arrive as odds-on favorites in the American League East, a division they have dominated since 1996.

Because some players are recovering from injuries and others are participating in the World Baseball Classic it will be an opportunity to see a lot of backups, minor-league prospects and camp invitees to play a lot of innings this spring.

I have decided to boil those players down to a list of five players who fans should watch as the exhibition season unfolds. They are not necessarily players who will have an immediate impact on the Yankees. But they could very well determine the future direction of the franchise over the next five years.

Let’s take a close look at my five future impact players in reverse order:

5) MARK MONTGOMERY, 22, RELIEF PITCHER

Montgomery was taken in the 11th round of the 2011 First Year Player Draft and to say he is on a fast track to the major leagues is putting it mildly. Though he does not look intimidating at 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Montgomery has blazed a rapid trail through the Yankees’ minor-league system. Last season he opened at High-A Tampa by going 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA and 14 saves. But the real eye-catcher is his 61 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings. He was quickly promoted to Double-A Trenton and he was 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 1 save. There he struck out 38 batters in 24 innings. Much like Joba Chamberlain, Montgomery features a nasty slider and he gets a lot of swings and misses with it. His fastball sits in the low 90s. The Yankees see him as a potential contributor as soon as this season. Manager Joe Girardi wants to see how he measures up against some major-league hitters and with Mariano Rivera heading into retirement it might be a good idea to have a guy like Montgomery knocking on the door.

4) AUSTIN ROMINE, 24, CATCHER

Romine’s value increased the day this offseason Russell Martin elected to sign a free-agent contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Romine, the son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine, was the Yankees’ second selection in 2007 First Year Player Draft but his development in the minors was overshadowed by the presence of Jesus Montero. With Montero also gone via a trade last season, Romine will have an opportunity this spring to flash his vaunted defensive skills. Both Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, who were major-league catchers themselves, believe Romine’s defense is major-league quality now. Two things have held Romine back: A recurring back injury and his offense. After missing most of 2012 with a back strain, Romine has been pronounced healthy. Romine as a hitter does not possess much power but makes good contact and rarely strikes out. The real problem is he is rusty from inaction and his bat is slow. Though it is doubtful Romine will overtake Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, the Yankees are anxious to see the former El Toro (CA) High School star stake his claim as the heir apparent at catcher. The No. 1 prospect in the organization, 20-year-old Gary Sanchez, is right on his heels and has been described as a “Montero-type power hitter with defensive skills.”

3) MASON WILLIAMS, 21, OUTFIELDER

With Curtis Granderson in the final year of his contract, the Yankees might be looking at Williams as a potential replacement down the road. The fourth pick of the Yankees in the 2010 First Year Player Draft is a potential five-tool player who is currently ranked behind Sanchez as the team’s No. 2 prospect. Williams hit .304 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs at Class-A Charleston and then was promoted to High-A Tampa, where he hit .277 in 22 games before having his season cut short by a torn labrum in his right shoulder. At only 6 feet and 150 pounds, Williams is expected to grow into a solid power hitter with excellent speed and above-average defensive skills. The Yankees have no doubt he will hit for average because he is way ahead of his peers in his approach at the plate. This spring Williams can open some eyes and perhaps have a shot to become a starter by 2015.

2) CESAR CABRAL, 24, RELIEF PITCHER

Cabral has been a forgotten man except for the team’s scouts who can’t wait to see him this spring. Cabral actually was a contender for the left-handed relief specialist job that Clay Rapada eventually won in 2012. However, Cabral was 1-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings before he suffered a stress fracture in his left elbow last spring. He did not pitch for the rest of the season. Cabral was a Rule V pick last season who had come off a 2011 season in which he struck out 70 batters in 55 innings in two stops in the Boston Red Sox minor-league system. Cabral is 100 percent healthy and he will get another chance to supplant Rapada in the bullpen. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound lefty has a low to mid-90s fastball but he gets a lot of swings and misses on an excellent circle change. The Yankees love his smooth delivery and if there would be any pitcher who could be a big surprise this spring for the Yankees it would be Cabral. He has great potential.

1) ZOILO ALMONTE, 23, OUTFIELDER

Almonte opened the eyes of Girardi last spring with his bat. Almonte then put together an excellent season at Double-A Trenton in which he hit .277 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs in 106 games. Signed at age 15 out of the Dominican Republic in 2005, Almonte offers a combination of both power and speed with the plus of being a switch-hitter. The Yankees have a set outfield of Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki and Granderson. They also have Russ Canzler, who was acquired from the Cleveland Indians, and veteran spring invitee Matt Diaz vying for reserve spots. However, Almonte or 26-year-old Melky Mesa could make the team with really good spring showings. Almonte is not considered as good a defender as Mesa but he provides the Yankees with a lot of potential power off the bench. It would be hard to see Almonte skip Triple A and make the Yankees. But if anyone could do it it would be Almonte. Watch him closely this spring.

 

Cervelli Tops Quartet Dueling For Catching Role

Happy New Year to all my fellow fans. I recently posted a three-part series looking at the Yankees from their pitching, their bullpen and starting lineup. Now I intend to zero in on a look at them from a position-by-position standpoint. With spring training mere weeks away it seems an appropriate time to do this. Enjoy!

CATCHER – POSITION OPEN

When  it comes to catchers, Yankee fans have been pretty spoiled. The position has been manned by such legends as Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada.

Of course, there have been years when the position has been filled by less than legends like Rick Cerone, Mike Stanley and Joe Girardi. Yes, him.

It seems that 2013 is one of those years the Yankees will be fielding a catcher who will be even lesser of a legend. The departure of Russell Martin to the Pittsburgh Pirates has left this position open with a four candidates vying for it beginning this spring.

None of the four have anywhere near the power Martin provided. But some are just as adept defensively. The Yankees signaled this was the direction they were going when they chose let Martin walk and opted not to sign free agent A.J. Pierzynski.

Pierzynski, 36, hit .278 with 27 home runs and 77 RBIs with the White Sox last season and he would have loved the short rightfield porch as a left-handed hitter. But the Yankees passed on him because of his defensive shortcomings and he signed with the Texas Rangers.

The Yankees four candidates are: former Posada and Martin backup Francisco Cervelli, 2012’s backup Chris Stewart, rookie prospect Austin Romine and former Los Angeles Angels backup Bobby Wilson.

The quartet are politely described as “defensive-minded” catchers, which in baseball-speak means they can’t hit a lick. For Yankee fans used to cyclical lineups without a weak link, the 2013 version will have one huge hole in it here. Whoever wins this job will be the opposing pitcher’s “escape hatch” out of big innings.

The leading candidate for the job appears to be Cervelli, 26, who ironically spent all of last season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre because of the presence of Martin and Stewart.

On the last day of spring training the Yankees swung a last-minute deal with the San Francisco Giants to acquire Stewart, who was out of minor-league options. The Yankees were so in love with Stewart’s defensive work behind the plate they opted to ship Cervelli out and he was not pleased about it – mostly because of the poor timing.

Cervelli went to Scranton determined to show the Yankees he belonged on the roster, but he hit just .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games. That is odd considering Cervelli had hit .271 with five home runs and 71 RBIs in 184 games over three previous seasons in the majors.

Cervelli admits that he was not happy about his demotion and it did affect his game.

Cervelli’s defense is considered pretty good. He sets a good target, he knows the hitters, calls a good game, has the respect of the pitchers and the coaching staff. His weakness lies in a somewhat erratic throwing arm. He has only thrown out 18.3 percent of base-stealers in his major-league career (23 out of 93 attempts).

He also has committed 20 errors in 177 games, most of those on throwing errors.

At Scranton, Cervelli threw out 30 percent of potential base-stealers but committed a whopping 15 passed balls.

So Cervelli’s defense is definite notch below what Martin and Stewart provided in 2012 and Cervelli is going to have to improve if he wants to win the starting job and keep it.

There is no doubt he is the best hitter of the bunch, albeit he lacks power. Cervelli is a spray hitter who is very adept hitting with runners in scoring position. He also is not bad a bunter and will give himself up to advance a runner. Those things should help the Yankees in 2013 since the team does lack power.

One concern with Cervelli is his penchant for injuries. He suffered a broken wrist in a home-plate collision in spring training in 2008. He also has suffered a trio of concussions the past few years and broke a bone in his foot in the spring of 2010 fouling a ball off his foot.

In winter ball in his native Venezuela, he suffered a whiplash injury, which later proved to be minor.

So durability is a definite issue with Cervelli.

Stewart, 30, has been a backup catcher throughout his career. The most games he has played is the 51 he started with Giants in 2011. He started 46 games for the Yankees last season and he batted .241 with one home run and 13 RBIs. Stewart actually improved some with the bat in 2012 because he is a career .217 hitter.

But he does not have a very high ceiling as a hitter.

Stewart enters the catching competition as probably the best defensive option the Yankees have.

This is despite that he set a personal high for himself of with eight passed balls last season. Then again, the Yankees’ pitchers are not the easiest to catch.

Stewart, however, committed only four errors and he cut down 22.8 percent of base-stealers after he threw out an amazing 39.2 percent with the Giants in 2011. Stewart not only has a strong arm, he is also accurate with it. It was obvious that not many teams wanted to challenge him last season.

Though Stewart won’t hit much, he will be an asset against teams that are aggressive on basepaths such as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Angels.

There was all kinds of talk this offseason that Romine, 24, was the organization’s choice to start behind the plate in 2013.

But general manager Brian Cashman recently addressed that issue by saying that it was extremely unlikely Romine would be able to win the job this spring coming off a season in which he was plagued with a serious back injury.

The son of former major-league outfielder Kevin Romine played in only 31 games in three stops last season. Romine batted .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs in just 103 at-bats.

Despite playing in the shadow of Jesus Montero throughout his minor-league career, the Yankees have always felt that Romine was far superior to Montero on defense and they have hoped that he would develop as a hitter as he matured.

But the back injury, which a recurrence of a previous back strain, certainly has arrested his development. Romine is considered to have a good enough bat to hit for a decent average in the major leagues with low double-digit power potential.

It is likely that the Yankees will take a more cautious approach with Romine this season. He likely would benefit from playing a full season at Scranton to prove his back problems are over. There is no doubt that Romine’s defense is already major-league quality.

Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena, two former catchers, absolutely love Romine’s defensive ability. They each say he is ready to play defense at the major-league level now. But the Yankees are waiting for him to prove himself healthy and they would like to see more improvement with his bat.

Wilson, 29, was a backup catcher with the Angels from 2009 through 2012. But he was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays late last season and he never played a game for them before not being tendered a contract offer this offseason.

The Yankees offered him a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. So he will be in the mix for a spot.

Wilson hit .211 with three home runs and 11 RBIs in 75 games with the Angels last season. He is a career .208 hitter in the majors.

But like Cervelli, Stewart and Romine, Wilson is considered an excellent defensive catcher.

In 2012, Wilson committed only four errors and was charged with just two passed balls. He also threw out 28.6 percent of potential base-stealers and he has a 27.1 percent career mark of nailing runners.

Wilson’s only hope seems to be supplanting Stewart as the backup but Stewart’s defense may be just too good. So the Yankees might ask Wilson to accept a minor-league assignment so he can be recalled if either Cervelli or Stewart are injured. That way the Yankees could keep Romine on track for promotion in 2014.

Two years ago, with Martin as the starter and Montero and Romine in the pipeline, catching looked to the strongest position on the team from a long-range standpoint. But the Yankees were not satisfied with Montero’s defense and they traded him to the Seattle Mariners in return for right-hand starter Michael Pineda.

Now with Martin and Montero gone and Romine on the mend, the position seems to rest with catching prospects in the minors.

J.R. Murphy, 21, regressed a bit last season. In 110 games between Class-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, Murphy hit .248 with nine home runs and 44 RBIs.

Scouts still believe that Murphy will develop power as he progresses because he has a short, powerful right-hand stroke. There are doubts about his long-term progress defensively. But, fortunately for Murphy, he also can play third base and he may eventually end up there.

But the player the Yankees are really salivating over is No. 1-ranked prospect Gary Sanchez, who turned 20 in December. Sanchez hit a combined .290 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs between Class-A Charleston and Tampa.

The Yankees look at Sanchez as a Montero with better defensive potential. At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Sanchez possesses above-average raw power and the potential to be excellent all-around hitter. He did regress a bit defensively last season, but Sanchez has a plus arm and he has time to develop into a good defensive catcher.

There have been rumors the Yankees might be willing to trade Sanchez but it is hard to see what the justification would be for Cashman. Catchers with good power bats like Sanchez do not come along too often and there are slim pickings in looking for a catcher who can match Posada’s or Martin’s production.

The Yankees may have been weakened by the loss of Martin, but the Yankees seem to be committed to starting a catcher with defensive ability and they will not care what they hit. Cervelli seems to have the inside track on the starting job and Stewart looks like he will be hard to beat as the backup.

That will allow the Yankees to get Romine another season of experience at Scranton and Wilson could be a call away at Scranton.

With Romine, Murphy and Sanchez in the pipeline, the Yankees do have some excellent young catchers on the way – particularly the gifted Sanchez. So if the Yankees can just withstand the short-term problem of having pure defensive catchers, the long-term prospects at this position are good.

But Yankee fans might be missing Martin’s power a lot this season.

NOTE: The only position I have not reviewed in this series is designated hitter. There is a good reason for that. The position has not been filled and may not be until spring exhibition games are under way. So this is the last part of the series. I hope it helped set the stage for how the team will fare this spring.

 

Martin Catches Fire At Right Time To Save Season

The New York Yankees have reached the end of the regular season as champions of the American League East and they have the best record in the league. It was not easy but they are now ready for the playoffs. It is time to look at the players that got them there and give them grades for the season.

CATCHER – RUSSELL MARTIN (21 HRs, 53 RBIs, .211 BA)

If you were judging Russell Martin’s first half you would say that it was a foregone conclusion he would not be back with the Yankees after this season.

At the midway point, Martin had eight home runs, 21 RBIs and he was hitting an anemic .184. Though the Yankees love his defense behind the plate they also realize having a catcher that unproductive hurts the offense. Opposing pitchers were using Martin to escape from innings with men on base.

But what a difference a second half makes.

Martin,29, found his lost stroke as the season progressed and he hit 13 home runs, drove in 32 runs and batted .242 in the second half. In his first season with the Yankees he hit 18 home runs, drove in 65 runs and batted .237. So it is safe to say that Martin may have saved his job with his good work in the second half.

Martin was particularly good when it counted most – in September. From Sept. 1 on Martin batted .258 with seven home runs and 17 RBIs. It was, by far, his best month of the season.

September is usually the time where catchers wear down from all those games behind the plate and all the nicks and bruises they incur during the season. But for some reason Martin just got better as the season progressed. He saved his best for last.

Compared to his 2011 season, Martin was quite durable. He started 116 games behind the plate and caught in 128 games overall.

His defense, as advertised, was very good.

He nailed 24 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him. That was down from his career average of 30 percent but it was still very respectable. He committed only six errors though he did have a a high total of nine passed balls.

His overall fielding percentage of .994 was the same as the Rays’ Jose Molina, who is considered the best defensive catcher in the league.

But a lot of Martin’s game behind the plate goes unquantified.

His agility and cat-quick reflexes prevent a lot of wild pitches by the way he blocks pitches in the dirt. Though the Yankees traded A.J. Burnett, they still had a lot of pitchers who test a catcher with nasty breaking pitches such as Freddy Garcia, Hiroki Kuroda and Boone Logan.

Catching such a diverse staff is no day at the beach but Martin handles it exceptionally well.

He also is able to communicate with his pitchers and he calls a great game. He commands the respect of the pitching staff and he is smart enough to help pitchers get out of jams.

He certainly helped Kuroda’s transition to the American League since he caught Kuroda when he played for the Dodgers. At the same time he helped in the development of rookie right-hander David Phelps.

Martin’s contract with the Yankees expires after the season ends. Martin had sought to sign an extension before the season began but it never happened. With the Yankees looking to trim payroll it unclear whether Martin will be offered a new contract or will be allowed to become a free agent.

If it were based on his first half, he would be gone. But his second half and performance in the playoffs could save him.

It helps that a some of the Yankees’ catching prospects were hampered by injury or are a few years away.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C-

SECOND HALF GRADE: B

OVERALL GRADE: C+

BACKUP – CHRIS STEWART (1 HR, 13 RBIs, .241 BA)

Chris Stewart came to the Yankees in a trade with the San Francisco Giants made on the last day of spring training. Because Stewart was out of options, Francisco Cervelli lost his job as Martin’s backup and was shipped off to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

So Stewart was replacing a very popular player in Cervelli. But he handled it well and won over some Yankee fans with his exceptional work behind the plate.

Backup catchers are not paid to hit. They are paid to call a good game, play defense, deter the running game and block pitches in the dirt. Stewart did all of those things well.

Stewart, 30, also became the “personal” catcher for CC Sabathia throughout most of the season and he seemed to have built a great rapport with the ace left-hander.

Stewart started 46 games and caught in 54 games overall.

The only red flag in his defense was that he committed a career-high eight passed balls in 395 innings, But that may have been a fluke because Stewart nailed 23 percent of the base-runners who tried to steal and committed four errors for a .990 fielding percentage.

Stewart drew praise for his defensive work even from opposing teams’ TV announcers. That means his good work was being noticed.

Martin started of the season hitting better than Martin. He was hitting .270 with nine RBIs at the season’s midpoint. Some fans even suggested Stewart replace Martin.

But Stewart ended up with one home run, 13 RBIs and he hit .241 on the season.

He hit just .220 in the second half, which is more in line with his career average of .217. So Stewart won’t be replacing Martin. But he complimented him well in 2012.

MIDSEASON GRADE: C

SECOND HALF GRADE: C

OVERALL GRADE: C

The Yankees catching depth was reduced a bit this past winter when they traded 21-year-old prospect Jesus Montero to the Seattle Mariners for right-hander Michael Pineda. The Yankees were not convinced Montero would develop the defensive skills to be able to play the position regularly.

So they sent his potent power bat to Seattle and he hit 19 home runs and drove in 74 runs and batted .267 in his first season in the majors. But he only started 55 games behind the plate. So maybe the Yankees were correct about his defense.

But the Yankees will miss his power and production.

Cervelli, 26, spent the entire season at Scranton despite the fact he was the team’s backup catcher in 2010 and 2011.

Cervelli hit .246 with two home runs and 39 RBIs in 99 games with Scranton. He was recalled to the majors when the roster expanded but he did not get much of a chance to play.

Though Cervelli is a bit better with the bat than Stewart, the Yankees have not been a big fan of Cervelli’s throwing behind the plate. He only nailed three of 27 base-runners (11 percent) in 2011 and he committed a lot throwing errors.

At Scranton this season, Cervelli committed only five errors but he was charged with 15 passed balls. Though other parts of Cervelli’s defensive game are good, manager Joe Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena (both former major-league catchers) believe Stewart was superior defensively.

Cervelli likely will look to improve his skills to stick next season or he could be shipped to another team. But as long as Stewart is around, Cervelli’s path back to the major leagues is blocked.

The Yankees had hoped their young catching prospect Austin Romine would make an impact in spring training. However, Romine was an early casualty when he succumbed to back spasms and he did not catch a single inning this past spring.

In fact, the Yankees cautiously held him out of game action for most of the season to allow his back issues to subside.

He caught only 17 games at Scranton and 31 games overall.

Romine, 23, hit .243 with four home runs and 15 RBIs. Though Romine will never hit like Montero, the Yankees believe he is capable to being an excellent defensive catcher in the major leagues right now. Next spring, he will push Stewart (if he is re-signed) and Cervelli for the backup catching job.

But with the Yankees always erring on the side of caution, Romine could end up at Scranton and the Yankees would monitor his back as the season progresses.

The Yankees are very lucky to have two very good young catching prospects in J.R. Murphy and Gary Sanchez.

Muphy, 21, hit .231 with four home runs and 16 RBIs at Double-A Trenton this season after advancing from Class-A Tampa, where he played in 67 games and hit .257. Murphy can also play third base and he has above-average defensive skills behind the plate.

Sanchez is currently the team’s No. 1 rated young prospect and with good reason. Sanchez, 19, hit a combined .344 with 18 home runs and 85 RBIs in 116 games between Class-A Charleston and Class-A Tampa this season, Unlike Montero, Sanchez does have some defensive ability behind the plate. He has a plus arm but his other defensive skills took a step backward this season.

But with his booming bat and his overall potential, Sanchez appears like he could eventually surpass Montero when he reaches the majors. His future is ultra-bright.

OVERALL POSITION GRADE: C

With Martin unsigned, this position will be in state of flux unless the Yankees decide to offer Martin a contract to remain with the team.

Considering the fact that Stewart is only considered a backup and Cervelli is looked upon the same way, Martin’s chances of returning are pretty good. Good free agent catchers are scarce and throw in the fact that Romine has had recurring back issues and you have a very compelling case for the Yankees to keep Martin.

But Romine, Murphy and Sanchez do point to a bright future ahead for the position. It is still a strength of the team to have this much depth at the position despite the trade of Montero.